On December 10, 1963, Greek diplomat and poet Giorgos Seferis was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature by King Gustav of Sweden. Seferis was the first Greek to receive the esteemed award.
Seferis was born in Urla, a town in Asia Minor, now Turkey, in 1900. The poet received an international education. His family moved to Athens when he was a teen, and he later traveled to Paris, where he studied law at the Sorbonne.
While Seferis was a student in Paris, Turkish forces burned the Greek and Armenian sections of the cosmopolitan city of Smyrna, forcing the surviving Greeks of Asia Minor to flee the region for Greece.
Destruction of Hellenism in Asia Minor had major impact on his life, career
Although not there at the time, the event was traumatic and left its mark on Seferis’ life and career. His entire extended family was forced to leave the region, and the Greek poet would not return to his native land until over 25 years after the Smyrna Catastrophe.
Many people attribute Seferis’ fixation on Odysseus, the ancient Greek hero who embarked on a years-long quest to reach home, to the displacement of Greeks in Asia Minor and his own yearning to return to a home that no longer exists.
The Catastrophe was a defining moment for a great number of Greek writers and artists of his generation, who were disturbed by man’s capability for destruction and brutality, and whose ideas regarding culture and ethnic identity were upended by the influx of millions of refugees from the region.
Seferis resisted the Junta
Seferis became a diplomat and had a successful career serving in various countries around the world, including Turkey, Jordan, Albania, and Iraq.
When the military dictatorship, or Junta, took power in Greece in 1967, Seferis immediately began to resist the brutal regime.
He publicly spoke out against the Junta, in a period during which anyone viewed as contrary to the dictatorship’s ideas could be detained, tortured, killed, or exiled.
Seferis died in 1971, tragically just three years before the end of the Junta. His funeral served as an act of resistance, however, as thousands of mourners carried his coffin through the streets of Athens, reciting his works of poetry that had been banned by the dictatorship.
When Giorgos Seferis won the Nobel Prize
Seferis’ poetry became known internationally in the 1950’s. He was nominated twice, in 1955 and 1961, before finally receiving the coveted prize.
The October 24, 1963 telegraph from the Swedish Academy announced that Seferis had won the prize “for his wonderful lyrical style, inspired by a deep feeling for the Greek cultural ideal.”
Seferis, who at the time was bedridden at home because of ill health, said “By selecting a Greek poet for the Nobel Prize, I think the Swedish Academy wanted to express its solidarity with the living, spiritual Greece, the Greece for which so many generations have fought, trying to keep its long cultural tradition alive.
“I also think that the Swedish Academy wanted to show that today’s humanity also needs poetry – from all peoples – and the Greek spirit.”
Seferis was competing for that year’s Nobel in a field of stellar writers including literary giants such as Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, English-American poet W.H. Auden and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
At the December 10th ceremony at Stockholm City Hall, Seferis spoke about the direct and unbroken continuity of the Greek language from antiquity to the present age.
He stated, “I belong to a small country. A stone cape in the Mediterranean, which has no other good than the struggle of its people, the sea, and the sunlight. Our country is small, but its tradition is enormous and … it was delivered to us without interruption.
“People never ceased to speak the Greek language. It had its alterations, like everything that is alive, but there are no gaps in its existence,” he noted.
He also referred to the necessity and function of poetry in the modern world, saying “It is important that Sweden wished to honor this poetry, and all poetry in general, even when it addresses a limited number of people.’”
Seferis concluded by saying “I believe that this modern world we live in, full of fear and anxiety, is in need of poetry.”